Part 1 of this essay may be found here.
Part 2 of this essay may be found here.
Part 3 of this essay may be found here.
Part 4 of this essay may be found here.
Part 5 of this essay may be found here.
Part 6 of this essay may be found here.
Part 7 of this essay may be found here.
Part 8 of this essay may be found here.
Rather simplistically, I think of 2004 as a BAD year. At one level, this is not surprising. My mother, Elaine Kohn Berger Saretsky, died at the age of 66 from ovarian cancer on March 1, leaving me not only an “orphan” at the age of 37, but also the legal guardian of my older sister Mindy, severely intellectually impaired since birth.
On the plus side, I had assumed control of my mother’s Oak Hill condominium, which netted me $1,100 in income each month. However, with my stepfather Eddie and I now co-executors of my mother’s estate, what should have been a simple division of property turned into a months-long duel of lawyers. He tried to intimidate me by hiring former Philadelphia Republican Party chair Vito Canuso, but I countered with Barbara Hladik Harrington, who had represented me in a 2001 guardianship hearing for Mindy.
It took a fateful decision on my part for this impasse to end – successfully for me in the long run, though not so much for Eddie, who died from a brain tumor on February 20, 2007, 18 days after turning 77. If this tumor was already present in 2004, it – coupled with overwhelming grief and envy (he had never liked “sharing” me with my mother) – might explain his unyielding bitterness.
In the meantime, though, I was reeling from the rather deranged final telephone conversation I had had with SP on March 5 – after which I spent a few weeks slowly disentangling myself from my step-step-niece, whose pointed question had triggered that insane call.
That was not quite the end of my interaction with SP, however. On April 13, I went to the UPS Store –still at 295 E. Swedesford Road in Wayne, PA – to spend $12.25 to send to SP what I described as “BOOKS, CD, T-SHIRT;” the package weighed 4.68 pounds. Curiously, I did not include a book of depression-related accounts she had given to me to read; I still have it on a shelf downstairs.
What I recall being especially “bad” about 2004 was my frustrating, often heartbreaking search for my next long-term romantic partner. At the time, I could not see that this was the last thing I should have been doing. But I was lonely and adrift with the highly active libido of a healthy 37-year-old man.
It was not as though I lacked options. Researching these essays reminded me of the number of women with whom I – dallied – just in the first 10 weeks of 2004, including the young woman hired to massage my ailing mother sometime in February. She and I went on a single, unremarkable date to South Street, where we watched my cousin play guitar in a club and ate pizza.
Meanwhile, at 4:15 pm (all times Eastern Standard Time) on March 18, I received an e-mail with the subject line Gulph Mills Station Stop which began thus:
“Remember me? It’s your Rte100/Subway buddy from yesterday! How are you doing? I did not see you this morning, but then again it was about 45 minutes earlier, so you may have been just getting out of bed at that point! 😉 “
This was from a bright, adorable blonde woman to whom I had given my FPC business card after riding with her on the Norristown High Speed Line (NHSL) the previous day. E-mails imply the red fitted Phillies cap I always wore sparked our conversation. I began a long follow-up e-mail by briefly noting the recent death of my mother – in the context of “the sun is starting to shine again” – following that with less “ghoulish” details about my life and work.
And here I back up to an e-mail I wrote to a different woman on February 20; we return to her shortly.
“My mother has been battling ovarian cancer for a little over two years now. […] Meanwhile, my 73-year-old stepfather—with painfully arthritic shoulders and hips–and she were moving to a new house, with asshole complications like you wouldn’t believe, and I have basically been doing the bulk of the heavy lifting/packing, etc. Anyway, this has all taken a toll on me–I’ve lost 10 or so pounds. Which is why I may be sounding a bit cranky lately.”
It was not until rereading this message that I remembered that when I first met my step-step-niece on March 2, she sized up the situation by asking me, in effect, “You are taking care of your step-father, your aunt and your grandmother – but who is taking care of you?”
The answer, of course, was “nobody.” When I met train-buddy, I was working full time (and consulting on the side), correspondingly inappropriately with my step-step-niece, trying to manage two elderly grieving relatives, grappling with new legal responsibilities – all while grieving more deeply than at any time since my father died 22 years earlier. Oh, and I had undiagnosed clinical depression. No wonder I was “cranky.”
When I next saw train-buddy, four evenings later on the NHSL, I was hurt that she had not responded to my e-mail, and I acted accordingly. At 11:41 pm that night, she wrote me a long, kind e-mail with the subject line 🙂. She began by saying she had started to write back before, but simply did not know what to say. She explained the older woman with her – who had acted as a further damper on our conversation – “is my co-worker. She also lives in King of Prussia and we ride together occasionally. She is really nice and decided to give me her motherly advice and told me she thought you were cute. (That should have made you smile at least 😉 ).”
Train-buddy then told me about her life and work…and made sure I had her home telephone number. We planned to get together after work on Monday, March 29, but we failed to connect somehow. We e-mailed a bit after that, but that was as far as it went. Later that year, I gave my FPC card to a woman on the NHSL who turned out to be a friend of train-buddy.
Despite ample evidence to the contrary, as my third consecutive Eastern Evaluation Research Society conference approached on April 17, I was beginning to feel “jinxed” romantically – as though I was destined never to find a lifetime romantic partner. At least I was lucky enough to join their Board of Directors on June 29, serving for one year.
But after a woman I met at the conference who was very interested in me then ended things after one or two dates, I e-mailed this on May 12 to the same woman I had e-mailed February 20:
“I am doing basically OK, other than having sworn off all romantic relationships indefinitely. The proverbial last straw happened.”
In the meantime, however, I was happily distracted by an upcoming wedding – that of the buddy whom I drove home on the morning of February 15, 2001. I put together a two-cassette mix tape to serve as music, then gave the “best man” toast after the actual best man bailed on his responsibility. At the wedding was a mutual friend I had not seen in about 15 years; I thought briefly about her as a romantic partner, but decided against it. I did, however, stay at her apartment outside Boston a short time later.
Because it turned out that what I really needed was a long vacation – or vacations. I needed to get the hell out of Dodge for a while.
At 1:12 am on June 12, I filled up the gas tank of my 1995 Buick Century at a Sunoco near my King of Prussia apartment. The following morning, I drove north – not to Boston, but to Northampton, MA, home of Smith College. Providing the soundtrack for this drive were six newly-burned CDs: CD Stuff VI-XI; CD Stuff X would, along with CD Stuff III, become staples of my evolving Friday night bath ritual.
I spent two nights at the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center at 1 Atwood Drive, just off I-91 and no more than a 10-minute drive south from the commercial heart of Northampton. I recall doing a lot of driving – at one point I was so desperate to find a bathroom, I was pulled over for speeding – which is verified by visits to Sunoco at 2:45 pm on June 14 (430 N. Main Street [Route 9] in nearby Leeds) and at 12:38 pm on June 15 (776 N. King Street in Northampton). The latter was on US 5, which parallels I-91. And here my memory gets a bit fuzzy. I likely followed US 5/Route 10 north one mile to I-91 north, which I then took into Vermont. I then meandered east through New Hampshire to I-95 north; what precise route I took remains a difficult memory to interrogate.
Besides getting a bit turned around in a New Hampshire town while “Marlene on the Wall” by Suzanne Vega played, what I most remember is passing the exit for Route 2 east (Boston) and thinking with profound melancholy, “That is the road home.”
It is highly likely I made a certain decision, unconsciously, at that moment.
I did not use my Sunoco car to buy more gas on this trip, meanwhile, though I did spend $429.53 for some sort of repairs in a Gulph Mills Sunoco on June 30. While spending three nights at the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, ME, I followed a similar itinerary as my trip one year earlier:
- I likely ate dinner at Moody’s Diner on June 15, though I have no record of it.
- I visited Pemaquid Point Lighthouse on June 16 – spending $26.25 at the Seagull Shop and enjoying the Art Gallery.
- That night, I ate dinner at King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta – $35 with tip.
- I then drove to the L.L Bean outlet in Freeport, where I spent $157.40 on clothing at 11:26 pm – then bought a large pine-scented candle in glass and two boxes of candy for $31.76 just 22 minutes later.
- At 12:25 pm, I withdrew $200 in cash from an ATM at 22 Commercial Street in Boothbay Harbor – which was located in the Fisherman’s Wharf Inn and Restaurant. AC and I had stayed here on the night of September 29, 1996, meaning I was in Maine when I turned 30 at midnight. This is just 11 miles south of the Cod Cove Inn. If memory serves, I enjoyed a cold beer on the rear deck, overlooking the harbor.
- I explored Wiscasset – attending a wine tasting from 3-5 pm on June 17. I may have eaten dinner at Le Garage (now Water Street Kitchen and Bar) that night.
After checking out on June 18, I stopped for a few hours in Portland, where I picked up a folding advertisement map of the city. I then drove back to Philadelphia.
I dwell on the details of this six-day, five-night trip because I was happier during it than I had been in years. And I think of this trip as marking the beginning of the end of my “intermission” in the Philadelphia area.
Indeed, when I drove back to Boston on July 23, I was already thinking about applying to area graduate schools of public health. That evening, I ate at Christopher’s Restaurant ($29.62) then spent the night at the EconoLodge on Route 9 in Natick; if memory serves, I then stayed at the home of the friend from my buddy’s wedding. While attending the employee reunion of Health and Addictions Research, Inc., where I had worked from October 1996 to June 1998, the next day, I learned that Boston University had an outstanding school of public health. I unconsciously made my second consequential decision in that moment.
The reunion was only one reason I was visiting Boston. In the summer of 1991, I had rented a car and driven to St. Louis, MO to attend a meeting of the Young Democrats of America; the late Andrew Hentschel was running for Treasurer and wanted my support. While there, I befriended some young women from Alaska; we met up again the following summer in New York City, while they worked as pages for the Democratic National Convention (“DNC”). In 2004, the DNC was held at the FleetCenter in Boston, and my Alaska friends again worked there. On opening night, July 26, one of them lent me her pass; I was in an upper-level seat when former President Bill Clinton addressed the crowd. It was electrifying.
The next day, I was walking through Christopher Columbus Park, in Boston’s North End, when I noticed a young man was addressing a small crowd. I recognized the tall and handsome Democratic state senator from Illinois, though for some reason I did not walk over to meet him and shake his hand; that is how close I came to meeting future Senator and President Barack Obama. That night, however, I sat in a bar near the FleetCenter to eat dinner – and watched Obama give one of the greatest keynote speeches of all time.
On July 28, I drove back to Philadelphia, stopping at my usual Willington, CT Sunoco for gas at 11:49 am. And just when I thought my life was calming down to some degree…August began.
A few months earlier, I had switched to the Paoli/Thorndale commuter rail, driving the 10 or so minutes to and from the Radnor station. And I was up to my old card-giving tricks – on August 4, I met a young woman who wrote to me that afternoon. After some back and forth, we met for ice cream at 2 pm on August 18 at Scoop Deville, then located near Rittenhouse Square. It was a disastrous “date,” almost as though she had changed her mind about me in the interim. Leaving work that night, I missed my usual 6:12 train. While I sat in the train station, rereading the same paragraph in my biography of Ross Macdonald, kicking myself for once again trying (and failing) to have a romantic life, I turned around and noticed a pair of white sneakers over black stockings descending the stairs. This was what happened next, according to an essay I started to write in 2011.
When the pair of sneakers over black stockings came down the stairs, they were alone. Otherwise, there was nothing special about them. They were simply the sort of shoes women (and men, given that he had a pair of worn white New Balance sneakers on his own feet) put on at the end of a workday to walk to the bus or the subway or the train station. They certainly weren’t anything at all like the bare ankle with a loosely draped gold anklet Barbara Stanwyck wore descending those stairs in Double Indemnity to meet Fred MacMurray for the first time.
Honeysuckle? In a train station?
Except that this time he looked back and watched as the descending sneakers sprouted a pair of long lean legs. The legs quickly grew a red and black plaid skirt of some light material hemmed just above the knee. Tucked into the skirt was what appeared to be a short-sleeved white dress shirt. Long lean arms, slightly tanned, were attached to the sleeves of the shirt. At the end of her right arm was her right hand, which had long tapered fingers. He couldn’t see the left hand.
Instinctively, he shifted left on his perch to get a better view of the head and face he knew would emerge from the neck of the shirt. As she reached the bottom of the stairway, though, all he could see was her straight, dark brown hair which partially covered a slender neck. What looked like a black plastic hair band pulled the hair back and out of her face.
Then she turned in his direction in search of somewhere to sit. And he saw a face which made his heart skip a beat.
It was, he thought, a beautiful face. Intelligent brown eyes were set underneath a high forehead. A wide mouth revealed small, even white teeth. The nose was neither too big nor too small. The skin was flawless. She was in her early twenties, maybe?
She walked back upstairs soon after that and went into a drug store in the cavernous underground railway complex. I followed her, transfixed. We eventually walked back downstairs – separately. I do not recall how we started to talk, but she left the train carrying one of my FPC business cards.
I floated on air for the rest of the ride back to Radnor station.
Where I found a number of police officers standing around my car, carefully lifting fingerprints. The leader of these officers was Joseph Paolantonio of the Radnor Township Police Department. A man – later identified as Ronald Burell – had broken the rubber seal along the top of the front passenger side window then literally pulled back the window frame to reach my lock. He only stole “an AM/FM Cassette Radio which I had purchased two months earlier for approximately $235, a cassette-CD-player converter which costs about $10 and a flashlight worth about $5,” according to a letter I wrote to Detective Paolantonio on September 29; the repairs – after insurance – cost $185. On December 21, 2004, I testified against Burell before Judge Beverly H. Foster in Suite 20 of 230 Sugartown Road in Wayne; the questioning boiled down to 1) have you ever met the defendant (I have not) and 2) did you ever give the defendant permission to enter your car (I did not).
Basically, August 18, 2004 was one of the craziest days of my life.
Five days later, I flew to Atlanta to attend the 2004 National Title X Grantee Meetin at the Ritz-Carlton on Ellis Street. A new mix CD – CD Stuff Vol. XII – came with me. On August 24, I delivered a talk entitled “Meeting the Needs of Substance Abusers: A Title X Service Delivery Model” to the 250+ attendees. I met an attendee from Honolulu, HI while checking into the meeting the day before. We struck up a conversation – and I learned I was the first man to whom she was attracted in some time who not only had his own car, but also his own home and job. We ended up hanging out in her room – then making out with almost ferocious intensity. She was the second shaved woman I had fooled around with that year – though her pants never came off. This did not stop me from rubbing her unshaved vagina, putting my fingers inside of her and urging her to cum against my hand. She did not, waiting to do so with water from the bathtub faucet after I returned to my room – where I masturbated to an explosive orgasm. Knowing I was addressing the meeting the next day, she tormented me with the idea that she would not wear any underwear, then spread her legs while I was speaking to show me…everything. She did not do so, however; we e-mailed sporadically until July 2007.
And then it was September. White-sneakers had returned to California, though we had some long and intense telephone conversations, whose end I once likened to the deafening silence when I ended similar calls with SP. One weekend that month, I had a near miss with yet another woman I had met on Friendster (I neglected to mention two from 2003).
On September 12, I attended a wedding reception in New Jersey with a woman I had met through the FPC research project I was now coordinating. She was tall, brilliant, attractive – and openly gay. Spending time together on the project, a genuine and close friendship had emerged, which – despite her sexual orientation – started to feel like something a bit more intimate. Research-colleague and I began to spend time together outside of our offices. One night, as we sipped single malt Scotch on her living room sofa, she stretched out her legs over my lap while I rubbed her feet. After the reception, we returned to her home. After some preliminary banter, I gently pushed her up against the wall of the hallway running from the kitchen to the living room and began to kiss her, hard. She said something to the effect of “Finally!” and we began to make out rather intensely. I recall her grabbing my ass and remarking how firm it was, which pleased me to no end. If I had not felt dirty and grimy from the long day, we would have gone upstairs to bedroom to fuck, likely multiple times.
At least, that was my excuse. In reality, a kind of warning siren was going off in my head, for reasons I could not now articulate. I had heeded such a warning at least once before – on my last weekend at Yale, when I said (not without reason) I was too tired to go back to the room of a female friend.
Research-colleague soon became involved with another woman, which took me by surprise. Not knowing this, I made an admittedly-crass comment about “finishing what we started” the next time I saw her. She came to my apartment on September 30 – my 38th birthday – but nothing happened because “Aunt Flo was visiting.” As late as October 27, though, our e-mails continue to be bantering and playful.
And then…a mutual friend told me something in strict confidence that caused me to completely reevaluate my opinion of research-colleague. Unfortunately, this meant I could not say anything to my erstwhile friend, leaving me in an awful passive-aggressive limbo. There are no (personal) e-mails between us until mid-January. By this point, white-sneakers had returned from Stanford and – despite having been chastised by research-colleague for the fact she was 14 years younger than me – we went out a few times. But as I wrote to research-colleague at 4:58 pm on February 6, 2005:
“With the rescheduling, however, [white-sneakers] had a prior engagement. No, we are not dating…and we never will…frankly, I don’t know what our relationship is…but it is not the one around which I had constructed such a fantasy, proving to me again that I need to stay far away from anything resembling romance. At least until I have figured out my return to Boston…and why I am mostly attracted to women I can’t have.
“And, please, spare me the “I told you so.” That is one reason I was avoiding you last night.”
It was as though I had fallen back into my non-relationship with SP. There are no personal e-mails after February 11. In the meantime, the woman with whom my cousin had wanted to set me up two years earlier and I were hanging out occasionally – we saw The Aviator in King of Prussia, just after it was released on December 25.
In the interim, I had had a two-months-long relationship with – wait for it – a woman I met on Friendster. Our first date – dinner at the since-closed Rembrandt’s – was on Tuesday, September 21. Things went so well, she joined my cousins, uncle and grandmother and I for Thanksgiving dinner on November 25. That night, however, she and I had a massive fight – and I ended our relationship the next day.
One night in the middle of December, finally, I went on a single date – to the Valley Forge Brewing Company, in the same shopping complex as the UPS Store – with the 9th woman I had met on Friendster in any meaningful way in the space of 16 months.
About two weeks later, I celebrated the end of 2004 at the New Jersey home of my FPC supervisee/friend. Rarely have I been as happy to welcome a new year as I was that dark and cold January morning. With the benefit of 18 years of hindsight, it is obvious that I could not then get out of my own way romantically, despite having some level of mutual romantic/sexual interaction with at least 11 women (and as many as 17). But in the wake of the rage-filled end of my involvement with SP, grief at the death of my mother, the ensuing battle over her estate and obvious signs of clinical depression (e.g., disproportionate reactions to trivial events and a discomfort in my own skin), I was ill-prepared emotionally to be in a healthy, long-term relationship with anybody.
This was all about to change, however, thanks to a bath one Friday night – and a chance meeting in a laundromat.
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 I did not then know that both of my genetic parents were still alive, though my genetic father died two years later. My genetic mother, with whom I have yet to speak, is still alive.
 Taking Route 10 north to Route 101, then following that east to I-95 makes the most sense, even if I do not recall driving through Manchester, NH.
 At midnight on September 2006, I was on the rocks – by myself – at Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. I desperately had to urinate, though, so I peed into an empty Polar Seltzer bottle, capped it, then threw it into a trash bin. I felt so guilty about it, I half-convinced myself the “pee police” were going to discover my transgression and fine/arrest me.
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